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A Major Shake-Up

by Rich Hammond / Los Angeles Kings

Two coaches in need of clear heads, John Stevens and Jamie Kompon went for a long run Monday night.

Just a couple hours earlier, the Kings’ assistant coaches had received the dreaded -- but not entirely surprising -- news: Terry Murray, their boss, had been fired, just over two months into a season in which the Kings, a team with high expectations, sat in 12th place in the Western Conference.

In one evening, there was much to comprehend. Stevens, a former NHL head coach in Philadelphia, would take over as the Kings’ interim coach, with Kompon as his assistant. Where to begin?

Stevens, unsure of his own long-term future, suddenly sat in charge of a team that would play the Boston Bruins in approximately 24 hours.
How would he game-plan for the Bruins? What would he tell his emotionally fragile players? How could he coax some offense out of a group that had run bone-dry?

Not surprisingly, those questions ran through Stevens’ mind throughout Monday night. The following morning, he gave a pleasant but weary smile when asked how much he had slept.

``Not very much,’’ Stevens said. ``Going to sleep was difficult.
Getting up was easy.’’

There have probably been a few sleepless nights lately around the Kings organization, which is exactly what led everyone to Monday afternoon, when Murray was let go after leading the Kings to the playoffs in the previous two seasons. The decline was slow and steady, in comparison to Murray’s quick, jolting end.

The Kings started this season with a 5-1-1 record, and seemed to have dealt well with the challenge of starting the season in Europe. Before long, cracks started to show. The Kings went 1-4-2 in their next seven games, but shortly thereafter seemed to settle themselves with a two-game sweep of Anaheim.

A turning-point game came on Nov. 23 in Dallas. The Stars tied the game in the final minute, then won in overtime. The Kings skidded to a 2-5-0 record in their next seven and never scored more than two goals in a game. A three-week stretch, one in which the Kings never left California, only led to two wins.

As the bumps became more turbulent, general manager Dean Lombardi knew he might have to make a coaching change. Last week, Lombardi debated the merits of a change and mulled potential candidates. Lombardi didn’t lay total blame at Murray’s feet, far from it, but a coaching change is one of the few things a general manager can do, mid-season, in an attempt to spark a moribund team.

The final straw, apparently, came on Saturday, when the Kings lost to Dallas again, this time 2-1 at STAPLES Center. The frustrated home fans booed. The players, after the game, looked downcast and disappointed.

Would that be the final game for Murray? Initial indications pointed to ``no.’’ Murray and the coaching staff joined the players Sunday morning for the long flight to Boston, and on Monday afternoon, the Kings went through a normal practice, with Murray diagramming drills and giving on-ice instruction.

Back in Los Angeles, though, things were far from status quo. Kings management had met on Sunday and ultimately decided that Murray’s tenure would end. At the crack of dawn Monday, Lombardi flew to Boston where he joined assistant GM Ron Hextall, with Lombardi knowing what his first duty would be.

Lombardi and Murray were colleagues, but also friends, having formed a relationship in Philadelphia when Murray was an assistant coach and Lombardi was a scout. Upon hiring Murray in 2008, Lombardi spoke passionately about Murray’s character and his ability to mold young players.

Lombardi saw firing Murray as nothing short of a necessary evil, something he was doing only as an attempt to salvage a season.
Lombardi’s opinion of Murray hadn’t dropped a bit, but upon his arrival at the team hotel, Lombardi went directly to Murray’s room and delivered the news of his firing.

The next couple hours went quick. Lombardi informed the assistant coaches, and let Stevens know he would be the interim coach. Lombardi called the players into a hotel ballroom and, according to some present, ripped them for costing Murray his job, but also took some responsibility on his own shoulders.

``Our performance cost someone their job, certainly someone we all looked up to and, we thought, did a great job with this team for the last few years,’’ defenseman Rob Scuderi said.

Players scattered, to eat dinner and reflect on the news, and a weary-sounding Lombardi conducted a conference call with local and national hockey reporters. That left Stevens and Kompon, who talked for a while and decided to go for a run together in the cold, clear Boston night in order to collect their thoughts.

``We just tried to digest the news,’’ Stevens said. ``You look at yourself immediately and feel guilty.’’

Both coaches owed something to Murray. Upon his hiring, Murray retained Kompon from the staff of former coach Marc Crawford. Two years later, after Stevens had been dismissed as the Flyers’ head coach, Murray hired him as a Kings assistant. Stevens had done Murray the same favor a couple years earlier, as Stevens retained Murray from Ken Hitchcock’s staff after Stevens replaced Hitchcock.

With the Kings’ morning skate just a few hours away, Stevens knew he would try to, as much as possible, keep intact the game plan that Murray had set in place. The lineup would stay the same, with the only change coming when defenseman Willie Mitchell had to be scratched because of an injury.

Under Murray, morning skates had been optional on a fairly regular basis, but on Tuesday, Stevens requested the presence of all healthy players. It wasn’t necessary about game-planning or running through drills. He wanted to the players to be together, to try to bond together in a difficult time.

After the skate, in a Kings locker room that is typically filled with laughter and loud country or rap music, there was only the sound of tape being pulled off equipment, as players sat silently at their stalls.

``We know we’ve been struggling,’’ captain Dustin Brown said. ``We know the situation at hand. I think guys were probably a little surprised with the timing (of Murray’s dismissal), I guess, but management felt they needed to make the decision they did. The players, we knew we needed to be better and that something was going to change if we didn’t get better. It happened pretty quick.’’

How would the players react at game time? Nobody could know, not Stevens, Kompon, Lombardi or even the players themselves. There would be emotion, but would it be directed the proper way, and it would it be enough to overcome the Bruins, who had been nearly unbeatable in the previous six weeks?

The answer, unfortunately for the Kings, came early. Rookie defenseman Slava Voynov took a penalty in the first minute, which immediately put the Kings on their heels. A turnover, and a defensive breakdown, led to a Boston goal before the seven-minute mark. The Kings took two more first-period penalties.

Stevens, whose even temperament isn’t too different from Murray’s even-keel approach, stayed calm behind the bench, even as the Bruins added a second goal, then a third. The Kings put a massive number  -- 80 -- of shots toward the net, but couldn’t get any of them past Boston goalie Tuukka Rask.

At the final horn, the home fans cheered a 3-0 Boston victory. The Kings had fallen to defeat for a fifth consecutive time and had been shut out for the third time this season, despite 41 shots on goal.

In the locker room, the mood seemed sad, perhaps with the shock of Murray’s firing still lingering.

``He put a lot into my game and I gained a lot from him,’’ center Anze Kopitar said.

In the hallway, minutes later, Stevens patiently and calmly dissected the defeat for reporters. Two sunrises earlier, he had been an assistant coach. In the preceding hours, he had tried to serve as both counselor and coach to a team still stunned over how its poor play led to the loss of its coach.

``I thought the guys tried really hard tonight,’’ Stevens said. ``I thought they did a lot of good things in the offensive zone, and I thought they expended a lot of energy trying to win a hockey game, considering the emotions that they’ve gone through with Terry being let go, a man they respect enormously. I really thought they acted like professionals tonight and really tried to focus on the hockey game and winning the hockey game.’’

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